Issue #64

Fall 2017

The Number of the Heart

by Ali Hildyard

"At the end of the five yard fence there begins the ten yard fence, and at the end of the ten yard fence is the fifteen yard fence. The mathematics are simple, and, for that reason, elusive. Let yourself not be disheartened because your mind runs ahead, runs faster than your feet. For the least important thing is the league of fences you imagine; the only important thing is reaching them.

In times past, there were many who failed even to reach the five yard fence; indeed, there was only one who, whether by diligence or some accident of birth, attained the twenty yard fence. Yet today inexperienced men routinely pass the twenty, the twenty five yard fence. Why should this be? I hazard it is because today we understand things well enough to take strength from uncertainty; we know now it is folly to hope that the fence before us is the last.

For myself, I was bearer of a son who reached the fifty five yard fence; that was in his prime, and had he not, like so many others, found his limit there – although all limits are equal, for they treat us just the same – who knows how much further he, like those many others, might have proved his talents?" He paused at this, since, among the many emotions in his mind – to instruct, to recount, to reminisce – there seemed for a moment no clear way forward.

There are those who would say a son is a fine thing," he continued at last. "What a thing it is to sacrifice one in this way. Yes, that is the word they would use: sacrifice. We understand, of course, that they are wrong, but let us imagine for a moment that they are right; suppose indeed it were a sacrifice. What then? Would not this action translate itself, through the medium of my instruction, into a pledge to you? Would it not justify both our cause and our relationship to it? Does it not vindicate my station – if ever it had been suspect – and thus, as both its own sentence and its own reprieve, compel me to instruct you to the end? Let me put this truth to you as a kind of question, which – immediately – I turn into a prescription: you may think that a son is this or that, but, whatever your preconceptions, you will find that you doubt many things when you are all alone, with nothing but the world for company. Today I will teach you that doubt in all its strength, for it is this – not faith – that propels us forward, that sweeps our cares aside and heaps them up again on the other side of the fence before us. In our daily affairs, too, don’t we seem to mount one fence after another? Maybe, in their hardship, we even confuse the two, and pass away without recognising the content of the night. It is easier, after all, to die half in fiction and half in fact than give over the monopoly of one's life on a probability of black or white. But it is precisely on this account that I often wonder if those who come after us will acknowledge us truly. Will they see beyond the blandness of our apparent task; will they see both the true aspiration and the true antagonist? And, in so doing, will they recognise, at heart, the austerity of our quest?" At this, he looked slowly along the first row; his mild, almost absent-minded eyes demanding: Will they? Will they recognise it?

Then he stepped down from the podium; he stepped down gently, as though he wished to give attention to everything; he stepped down gently, in a different sentence, like someone still awaiting the things he has lost. When he spoke again it was only after he had walked from the start of the room to its finish, and the room itself had become equal to his footsteps, so that there was no longer any before or behind.

"Yes, I think, now, I will answer that question," he ended: "the only question that, in your silence, you could ask. You should believe nothing; neither should you doubt; so let it be the one question between us, and, like the fences, stand on each side and the other. My children, it is the number of the heart. Five is the number of the heart."

Author Bio


Ali Hildyard studied English Literature at Oxford. He lives in London, and a first collection of stories in Spanish, “En dirección de Circe y otras historias” is forthcoming September 2017. He remains open to representation by UK, EU and US Literary agents. His story, "The House Above the Bay," appeared in Issue #62 of The Cafe Irreal. You can contact him at: